The most helpful healthy-eating tool I know is not about what or what not to eat — it’s about tapping into how hungry or full you feel.
Learning (or, I should say, relearning) how to listen and respond to your body’s hunger and satiety cues is an invaluable key to nourishing yourself well and avoiding overeating. It can help you find balance in any situation, from an ordinary Wednesday night to a weekend beach party.
Healthy babies are born with fine-tuned hunger-satiety mechanisms. Whether they accept food and how much they eat are internally motivated — they feed when they are hungry and stop when they are satisfied.
But as we grow up and begin to interface with the world, we are influenced more and more by external forces. We are praised for cleaning our plates; we are given candy as a reward for good behavior; we learn to expect a snack during a 45-minute mommy-and-me class; or perhaps we are teased for having a voracious appetite. Before long, these messages take over, and decisions about when and how much to eat become increasingly detached from our physical feelings.
By the time we are adults, we are well-practiced at ignoring our internal cues of hunger and fullness. We eat because we are compelled to finish what is heaped in front of us, because we “deserve” that doughnut after a long day’s work, or because an ad sparks a chocolate craving.
On the flip side, we also learn to ignore our genuine physical hunger as we accrue years of practice with restrictive diets that tell us our appetite is a beast we have to fight.
When I was in private practice as a dietitian, I developed a tool called the Hunger Continuum to help my clients reconnect with and honor their internal sense of hunger and satisfaction, and it proved to be immeasurably helpful. Many have told me it was the one thing that helped them the most — that no matter the circumstances, they were able to stay on a healthy track if they kept the Hunger Continuum in mind.
All it requires is that you stop, check in with yourself, and assign a number to how hungry or satisfied you are on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is “famished,” 10 is “painfully stuffed” and 5 is a neutral point of balance. The goal is to stay toward the middle of the scale, between 3, where you have strong but not overwhelming feelings of hunger, and 7, where you are full, but not very full.
To do this, you need to listen to your body, eat when you feel genuine physical hunger — not bored hunger, lonely hunger or stressed-out hunger — and stop eating when you are satisfied but not stuffed.
What number would you say you’re at right now? If you can’t quite tell, don’t worry. It might take some practice, given the many years spent hushing that internal voice. But even if you are not exactly sure where you are on the scale at a given time, merely stopping to check in can help.
It’s best to eat when you reach a 3 — letting your appetite build a little past those first stirrings of hunger but satisfying it before you become ravenous. It’s not always possible to hit that mark — sometimes you don’t have control over when you are able to eat — but you can set up your routine to make it easier to achieve.
Although it sounds contrary to eating according to your appetite, establishing a regular eating pattern helps by getting you into a predictable daily rhythm so you become hungry around the same times each day and can plan your meals and snacks accordingly. That pattern can be three squares a day, mini-meals or something in between — whatever works best for you.
Once that is established, you’ll be better armed to listen to your body and more inclined to pass on the oversize muffins that show up in the break room at work, because you realize you are comfortably at a 5 on the continuum from breakfast earlier. And when you listen to your body’s cues, you will also have the wherewithal to eat something when you are genuinely hungry, even if it is not on the official schedule.
The other side of the spectrum, perhaps more critical for most of us, is knowing when to stop eating. How often do you push back from the dinner table overly stuffed or realize you are beyond full when your spoon scrapes the bottom of the pint of ice cream? You can avoid that kind of overeating, ultimately improving your digestion and keeping your weight in check, by using the continuum.
To use it effectively, make sure you eat slowly, savoring each bite, to give your stomach a chance to tell your brain it has had enough. As you eat, pause to check in periodically to recognize how your satiety is building, and stop eating when you reach a seven on the continuum — comfortably full but not very full.
By stopping here, you harness the most personalized and self-nurturing method of portion control, one that responds to your physical needs. Unlike scales and measuring cups, it’s a tool that is with you wherever you go.
The Hunger Continuum
1 – famished
2 – uncomfortably hungry
3 – strong feelings of hunger
4 – first signs of hunger
5 – neutral (neither hungry nor full)
6 – nearly full
7 – comfortably full
8 – very full
9 – stuffed
10 – painfully stuffed
Krieger is a registered dietitian, nutritionist and author .